Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, al3x.net has served as his online home.

Hope For The New Year

I greatly enjoy Edge’s annual question, posed to a variety of top minds (skewing heavily academic). This year’s – what are you optimistic about? – is no exception. Of the many answers, brilliant and tedious alike, two in conjunction stood out for me as reasons to be hopeful about the future.

The first response that really spoke to me was from Juan Enriquez, CEO, scholar, and author. Enriquez argues that a networked global economy will break down poverty, discrimination, and similar ills. A strong excerpt:

“As long as you can become and remain a part of the network, the power of place matters ever less. Who your parents were, where you were born, is irrelevant as long as you have access to and interest in education, technology, science, and networks.”

Tie that to the response from David Berreby, science writer and author. He suggests that the “zombie concept of identity” – “the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation” – is breaking down, as evidenced by more multifaceted analyses of the motivations behind socially devastating actions like terrorism. Berreby offers engaging rhetorical questions:

“As daily talk becomes more comfortable with the idea that people have multiple identities whose management is a complex psychological phenomenon, there will be more research on the central questions: What makes a particular identity convincing? What makes it come to the fore in a given context?”

These two responses in tandem portray a future in which we’re free to create successful societies across the old borders of place and ethnicity, societies that reflect complex and mutually-understood values. It is the sociological equivalent of an efficient market, human capital traded to where it’s best put to use. Again, Enriquez:

“All of this implies an accelerating set of shifts in allegiance and identity. Politicians and citizens who wish to preserve and protect the current country are well advised to pay attention to these trends as more have a choice and as ever more debate whether to become a more compact few. For the illegitimate or the slow, it will be harder to maintain boundaries and borders. There is little margin for error; each government and temporarily dominant party can screw up the whole. And the whole can be split very fast. But you have many options. You can fight to preserve that you love or you can choose to build or inhabit an alternative space. Your choice.”

This sounds aggressive, but I find it hopeful. Give up place, as Eriquez suggests, and you can find global prosperity and community; “[s]omeone’s success depends ever less on taking what the other had, [as] you can build and make your own.” Give up assumptions about groups of people, as Berreby suggests, and you can truly understand the motivations of the other, be it your neighbor, your friend, or your supposed enemy.

It’s a future of choice, and of diversity, and of autonomy. Happy new year.

Knowing Where I Stand